ZENDA Casey is the woman whose 30-year marriage ended only nine months after her husband Michael Johnsen was elected a NSW Nationals MP, when “politics took over our lives”.
She was his “most loyal supporter and best friend”, he said in his inaugural speech to parliament in March, 2015, after a traditional Nationals family values election campaign in which his wife featured prominently. Only weeks after the marriage ended in late 2015 he was in a relationship with a Sydney woman he met through his work.
Less than two weeks after Natalie Joyce pierced the privacy wall to reveal the pain of a wife who put her career on hold to support husband Barnaby Joyce, only to have their marriage end after his affair with a parliamentary staffer, Ms Casey has broken her silence with a pointed message for politicians.
She had no regrets about her long marriage, but she held “politics, the culture that surrounds it and the lifestyle it entails” as the primary reason for its end.
“I was devastated,” she said.
“Michael and I supported each other and had a successful relationship for 30 years. Even though the marriage has now ended, I will never regret that support. But I will always regret that politics took over our lives.”
Mr Johnsen faces a highly unusual preselection challenge against a sitting MP by mid-year, prompted in part by the circumstances of his marriage ending, which dismayed many in the party and the community where his former wife remains popular.
Michael and I supported each other and had a successful relationship for 30 years. Even though the marriage has now ended, I will never regret that support. But I will always regret that politics took over our lives.Zenda Casey, former wife of Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen
Mr Johnsen and Nationals state executives were informed in January of the preselection challenge against the Upper Hunter MP who holds the seat by a margin of just 2.2 per cent – making it one of the most marginal seats in the state - down from a safe Nationals seat with a margin of 23 per cent under previous MP George Souris.
Ms Casey, who recently changed her name from Zenda Johnsen and has two children with her former husband, said she supported him for decades because “I loved him and wanted him to achieve his dream”.
He made repeated attempts to become elected at local, state and federal level, including running for a federal seat in 1996, 2010 and 2013 and becoming Upper Hunter Shire council mayor from 2009-12.
“I believed he would be a good MP. However, politics can be very image-focused and this can unfortunately change people and what is important to them.
“Politics became consuming. It became all that mattered and that is not healthy for anyone, for any relationship.”
The past two years had been “an extremely challenging time for myself and my family” because “a marriage breakdown is very hard on any children involved”, Ms Casey said.
Mr Johnsen confirmed the marriage ended “just over two years ago” but declined to comment on the circumstances. He also declined to respond to questions about the proportion of time he has been staying in Sydney in the past two years.
In his inaugural speech Mr Johnsen thanked his supporters who had “demonstrated a level of loyalty towards my wellbeing that only true family and friends can do”.
Former Gloucester mayor and former Nationals Party member John Rosenbaum, who was in Parliament House with wife Diana to listen to Mr Johnsen’s inaugural speech, said the Johnsen marriage breakdown and the circumstances around it were “very disappointing”.
Zenda Johnsen’s strong support of her husband was a factor in how voters perceived him as a candidate, Mr Rosenbaum said.
“Rural people are conservative in the way they see life and the family unit is very important to them, more important, maybe, than for people in the city,” he said.
“If you’re a candidate and your wife’s very supportive and your family’s behind you then people quite naturally decide, ‘He’s a great family man’.”
The end of a marriage relatively soon after an election in which a candidate’s family has featured was likely to be judged negatively by people, Mr Rosenbaum said.
He said the Nationals were going to struggle to hold Upper Hunter no matter who is the candidate because of resentment in regional and rural areas about issues including council amalgamations and the greyhound ban backflip.
The NSW Nationals said preselections had not been scheduled yet. The party did not respond to questions about Mr Johnsen.